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A Project of "EPIC" Proportions

Computer science course gets students out of the classroom and into the community

This past fall, four Dartmouth seniors took a course called EPICS, which stands for Engineering Projects in Community Service. The mission was for the students to take what they learned in the classroom and put it to use in the community.

A Palm hand-held computer used by the Montshire Museum to survey visitors.
A Palm hand-held computer used by the Montshire Museum to survey visitors. Students in Dartmouth's EPICS course developed the survey software, which sends responsses to a desktop computer for anaylsis. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Benjamin O. Minkowsky, Erik Hinterbichler, Naomi L. Forman, and Alexander D. Ferguson, all members of the Class of 2006, worked on a project for the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vt. The museum wanted a more systematic and sophisticated way to survey their visitors. So the students, under the direction of Assistant Professor of Computer Science Christopher Bailey-Kellogg, built a custom-made and customizable surveying tool for the museum.

"It was a nice, challenging project for the students," says Bailey-Kellogg. "It brought together the knowledge and skills they acquired at Dartmouth and put them to good use."

The group used small, hand-held computers donated by Palm, and modified them for their needs. With input from the staff at the Montshire, the students developed a software program to help the staff create customized surveys. Then, they developed Palm software to display these surveys and collect responses. The final step involved getting the survey answers from the Palm back to a desktop computer for compilation and analysis.

"It was quite a complex challenge to create a piece of software that was easy to operate and adaptable enough to be used by other museum departments," says David Goudy, director of the Montshire Museum. "This gives us a valuable time-saving tool to help us learn more about our audience."

Hinterbichler, one of the students in the class, says, "There were some frustrating parts, but if it's not challenging then it's not worthwhile."

EPICS, based on the model established by Purdue University, is now under way at many colleges and universities. This is the first Dartmouth EPICS project, and Bailey-Kellogg has another planned for early 2006. The Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity wants to improve volunteer organization and coordination, and Bailey-Kellogg has some students lined up to build a Web-based tool to manage the schedule of volunteer opportunities.

Hinterbichler approves of continuing the EPICS program. "I think this is a great idea for a class, hopefully they will keep it at Dartmouth as part of the regular curriculum," he says.

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 12/17/08